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Recitations in humanities classes tend to be oriented around discussion rather than problem solving. This handout will help you optimize classroom conversations, whether online or in person. Although every class will have its own conversational dynamics, there are certain strategies you can apply before the discussion, during the discussion, and after the discussion.

Before discussion

First, make sure you’ve done the reading! Remember, however, that reading class material does not necessarily mean you have to pour over every sentence. Your reading strategies should be based on how you will be required to handle the content of a text. In general, when preparing for a recitation discussion, you should take note of particular points of agreement or disagreement with your author. You might also want to mark important examples that the author uses. And perhaps most importantly, mark those passages in your reading that you don’t understand. Confusion is not necessarily a bad thing, because you can frame these things as questions. Articulating well-phrased questions is absolutely essential to any good class discussion. Do not underestimate your capability to come up with good questions, and never underestimate the importance of good questions for class discussions. It’s important to keep in mind that the point of class discussion isn’t to show off how much you know—students who think this is the case may be afraid to participate for fear of not seeming informed enough. Instead, the main purpose of discussion is to better understand the reading and to ask critical questions.

After you read, it’s best to at least quickly review your reading and/or lecture notes prior to class discussion. Test your comprehension of these materials by summarizing the major points out loud. The more you practice saying things out loud, the more prepared you will be to participate in conversations.

You may want to arrive early to class and ask one of your classmates what they thought about the reading. Starting up a conversation before class beings can help make participation feel more natural. It can also give you a sense of the sorts of things your classmates found interesting, important, or confusing.

In Zoom classes, time before discussion may or may not be available, but you can take advantage of the many other avenues of communication that often come with remote learning. Discussion forums, blog posts, VoiceThreads, and other digital tools are often used in online classes to facilitate interactions about the readings before discussions take place. If instructors already ask you to respond to peers using these tools, don’t just do so to fulfill a requirement. Engage with the ideas and questions of other students as a means of developing the kinds of interactions you plan on extending to the actual discussion.

Always ensure that your physical needs are met prior to the class conversation. If your classroom runs cold, layer your clothes. If class happens at a time when you need a bit of a pick-me-up, bring coffee, tea, or another snack for energy. And if you tend to get fidgety or nervous, consider bringing a stress ball to focus your energy during the discussion. For online discussions, focus on finding a comfortable and quiet location for joining class.

It will also help to think about phrasing you could use to respectfully disagree with someone. It is usually good discussion practice to frame your disagreement in a constructive and positive way. For example, to someone with whom you disagree, you might say: “I can see the merits of that idea and why it might be attractive. But the way I see it…”

Finally, if you tend to be shy in conversational contexts, know that this is normal and you’re not alone. Use time before participating to write some brief comments to yourself. This can make it easier to collect and express your thoughts when the moment comes. Particularly if you do not like speaking, it can be helpful to say something early in the discussion. This provides positive reinforcement and helps set the tone for the rest of the conversation.

During discussion

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is be a good listener. This means considering what your classmates are saying and tailoring your responses to their comments or concerns. Sometimes, this can be as simple as articulating back what they have said, and adding an observation of your own. For example: “You seem to be saying _____________. I like that, and it makes me think of…” Listening is also important to demonstrate to your peers and your professor, especially if participation is part of your grade. Looking up and nodding your head can express to others that you are engaged in the conversation and paying attention, while staring at a device or your book during the discussion can convey the opposite. In an online discussion, it is even easier for listeners to feel distracted or for speakers to feel unheard. Try deliberately using body language, the chat function, and other cues to maintain a clear line of communication with other participants. For example, when someone is addressing you directly, you could try looking at your camera.

Your goal as a participant should be to think with others, not speak at them. This might mean taking notes on what a classmate says. Writing down thoughts while someone is speaking can be challenging, but with practice this may help you consolidate your own thoughts, as well as provide specific things that you can refer back to in your own comments.

When you’re confused or don’t understand something, try framing your confusion as a question. You can relate your question to a particular passage from the reading, which your classmates can reference in their own responses. For example: “On page 65 of the text, the author says that…I’m a bit confused about what she’s trying to say. What do you think she means here?”

Remember that less is more. Your classmates will appreciate a conversational partner who has something to say or a question to ask, but also takes care not to monopolize time. If someone asks, you can always expand your comment or idea. At the same time, take caution not to rush when you speak. If you’re nervous, take deep breaths and speak clearly. This makes it easier for someone to understand you, and to respond thoughtfully. In Zoom classes, you may also want to pay attention to your distance from the microphone and any ambient noises that might affect the way you sound to others. It is common practice in online classes to keep yourself muted unless you are making a specific contribution.

Identify your teacher’s discussion style. Do they direct conversations according to specific questions they want you to answer? Or are they interested in an ‘organic’ conversation? Figuring out how they facilitate conversations can help you understand what they might be looking for from you.

If you’re shy, be strategic about where you sit in the room. It might be helpful to sit close to the professor, where you can easily get their attention. In Zoom classes, there may be possibilities for contributing to class discussions that aren’t available in a classroom. For example, if your instructor has enabled the chat function, consider adding your comments or questions this way. A written comment may not always receive immediate attention, but it still indicates your participation in a demonstrable way.

After discussion

Take a few minutes after class to write down two or three main themes from the conversation. You might even practice speaking out loud some of the ideas you heard, as a way to engage in active learning. And as always, plan strategically about how you will review your course material for the next class discussion.

Additional resources

If you feel you are having difficulty asking questions because you are not able to listen well and understand the conversation around you or the material being presented, please see our handout on Academic Listening Strategies.

If you would like to work on speaking up in class with an academic coach, make an appointment with one of the Learning Center’s coaches. An academic coach can help you practice formulating your questions and comments and come up with an individualized plan for speaking up in class.

Works consulted

Feak, C., Reinhart, S. & Rohlck, T. Academic Interactions: Communicating on campus. Michigan Series in English for Academic & Professional Purposes. (2009). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


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